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The Case Of The Missing Portrait
Thomas Jefferson paid Gilbert Stuart $100 for a portrait, then waited 21 years for delivery. A fire-blackened canvas discovered over a century later raises doubt that the original ever left the artist’s Boston studio
April 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 3
If Dearborn was disgusted, Jefferson was jusl plain mad. On February r, he replied in the plainest possible language: “On the subject of Mr. Stewail and my portrait, he must have spoken without reflexion, when he supposed it in my possession and hanging in my hall. The peculiarities of his temper and ideas render him a difficult subject to handle. … With respect to the ist canvas portrait [the 1800 painting] I thought it a good one, and should have been content with it, had he not himself been dissatisfied with it, and still if he daises to deliver that instead of the and [the 1805 painting] if he will finish and deliver it I shall be satisfied.”
Possibly mistrusting his own temper, Dearborn sent his son around to Stuart’s studio a second time to see what the artist had to say. Apparently Jefferson’s remarks hit home, for the painter “now owns that he had been mistaken and that he has received one hundred dollars for the portrait, which you have not received and only wants to know whether you would prefer a common portrait or one of half the length of the Body, the former at $100, the latter $300.”
To this astonishing request, the former President replied with remarkable equanimity. Apologizing to Dearborn for the protracted negotiations he had had to undergo, Jefferson believed the end might be in sight at last. “We may now hope to close it,” he wrote, “by accepting one of the alternatives [Stuart] proposes. I shall be perfectly content to receive the original he drew in Philadelphia in 1800, which was of the common size (that the painters call I believe a bust). It will suit me better than a half length as it will range better in the line of my other portraits not one of which is halllength.” Then, remembering the artist’s capacity for allowing mundane details to escape him, he added, “I have no doubt Mr. Stuart’s justice will think me entitled to the original and not merely a copy. There was something pleasanter in the aspect of that portrait than the second drawn at Washington. It will come safest by water addressed to the care of Capt. Bernard Peyton, Richmond.”
Finally Dearborn received a letter of acknowledgment from Monticello, dated August 17, 1821: “The portrait by Stuart was received in due time and good order, and claims, for this difficult acquisition, the thanks of the family.” So far as Dearborn was concerned, the matter was closed for good. But was this, after all, the end of the story?
History has a way of not touching most of us personally, even though we smile at an exchange of letters like this and delight in the knowledge that great men are also subject to tribulations. Hut to Orland Campbell, a New York portrait artist, the foregoing correspondence had considerable significance.
In 1937 Campbell had come into possession of a neglected portrait of Thomas Jefferson. His first thought was that it was the work of Gilbert Stuart, and after having it relined, cleaned, and repaired, he was convinced of it. But how to prove it? His brother Courtney became interested in the picture and began searching out the scattered documents which, with evidence provided by the painting itself, eventually led the Campbells to a far more important conclusion.
As an experienced portraitist himself, Campbell also believed that the picture had been painted from life, or, in other words, that it was not a copy of Stuart’s work. Examining the surface of the painting, Campbell detected several layers of paint and decided to have it X-rayed and photographed under infrared light. These tests showed immediately that there was, beneath the visible portrait, another likeness of Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson’s letters indicated plainly that he had not received the 1800 painting, for which he had paid Stuart one hundred dollars. In 1805, when Stuart received a commission from fames Howdoin to paint a portrait of Jefferson, the artist found himself in a terrible dilemma. He could hardIv ask the President to sit for a new portrait when the first one had never been delivered to him. Nor could Stuart copy the 1800 painting, because Jefferson had aged considerably in those five years, and his appearance was further altered by the fact that he wore his hair differently.
Faced with these problems, Stuart told Jefferson that he was dissatisfied with the first portrait and asked for another sitting. Thereupon he simply corrected the 1800 picture by painting a new likeness right over it, on the same canvas. This was borne out by the X rays, which showed that the artist had painted out part of the face and superimposed another on it. And the outline of the subsurface portrait revealed by these X rays bore a marked resemblance to two English engravings made from the 1800 portrait—the only copies known to have been made of it.
If Campbell’s analysis was correct, the 1800 picture had disappeared from sight in 1805, at the moment Stuart painted a new likeness on top of it. This not only explained the fact that Jefferson never received it, but made clear why Stuart had been so reluctant when pressed to deliver it.
There was also a good explanation of why Stuart had not wanted to part with his 1805 study of Jefferson. In those days before photography it was common practice (and a sure source of income) for a portrait painter to execute a life study of a prominent man and then to make replicas of it for sale to as many other people as could be persuaded to buy one. Stuart, frequently in financial difficulty, referred to certain replicas as his “hundred-dollar bills,” because he could count on that amount for each one he turned out.